Friday, 17 May 2013

Zen and the art of topsoil clearance

Lots of things go through your mind as you stand in front of a large 360 degree mechanical excavator as it removes startling amounts of topsoil:

Is that really the top of the natural ground surface? Is that a Roman wall? Is that a pit / post hole / ditch? What am I going to have for dinner tonight? Did I remember to pack my lunch this morning? Will that large cloud in the distance bring rain (or worse hail or snow)? Was that bone I just saw disappearing into the machine bucket? Why didn't the Moldovan entry for the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest have any trumpets in it?

Machine watching is, quite possibly, both the most enjoyable, scary, enthralling, exhilarating and (sometimes) terrifying experience that an archaeologist can have whilst retaining their clothes (and, to be honest, I really wouldn't recommend 'Nudist Dig Watch', not even as a specialist Channel 5 programme). Seeing large areas of plough soil being effortlessly scrapped off to the very top of the archaeological horizon is, perhaps curiously, also rather relaxing.

The methodical, repetitive movement of the machine bucket, the slow scrap of the natural chalk, the relentless discharge of soil into the dumper truck, the ever increasing bulk of the spoil heap. Once you've got over the fear of missing the natural (not going deep enough resulting in weeks of backbreaking shovel scraping and barrowing, too deep and the archaeological deposits go ‘bye bye’ leaving you nothing to show but the sad remnant of something important exposed in the section wall), the process is actually quite calming. 

It allows you to stop; to contemplate; to think; to put things in order and, at times, to reach a state of almost Zen-like meditation.

Just as long as you don't ever take your eyes off the progress of the machine bucket - one unsupervised scrape and you could just destroy the very piece of archaeological evidence that you've long been looking for.

Today, for instance, as the sun broke through the rain heavy clouds, finally bringing some (little) warmth to the sodden ground, I found myself standing in a Dorset field overlooking the Purbeck Hills, in front of a mechanical excavator removing plough soil down onto a gleaming white surface of natural chalk. Every so often, a darkened patch of earth alerted me to the presence of a backfilled storage pit, ditch or posthole whilst a wall or patch of mortar brought some new area of interest to light. Then, shovel in hand, I jumped (as energetically as a man of my age can) into the trench in order to define the edges of the newly exposed feature.

When not 'jumping' and shovelling, of course, it's very easy to slip into a mental state of brain-freeze, a synaptic 'pause' where, although your eyes are fixed to the developing archaeology, your brain is merrily skipping off to some distant place (a la-la land for the less alert). Today, for instance, I found myself ruminating on everything from world politics to DIY home maintenance, in-between touching on areas as diverse as my unfinished novel (of some 25 years) and who was likely to win Eurovision based on what I'd little I’d seen in the first semi-final.

At one stage my musings were brought to a sudden stop by the realisation that the engine on the digger had slowed and that the driver was grinning at me and gesturing to the ground at my feet.

Oh yes....a wall….back to reality. 

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